Sunday, May 26, 2013

Speaking the truth in love after tragedies

As you're probably aware, a particularly nasty tornado hit near Oklahoma City on Monday. About tragedies like this, I would rather say nothing than something insensitive or canned, which unfortunately means I end up saying nothing. Depending on the circles you run in, you may also be aware that John Piper, did decide to say something, which has raised a rather disheartening commotion among some bloggers I greatly respect like Morgan Guyton and Rachel Held Evans. (Both posts and their subsequent follow-ups are still well worth a read) I'm going to speak like a fool for now (biblical precedent--2 Corinthians 11) and do some pontificating of my own on the situation.

Bloggers like the aforementioned two have used this incident as an occasion to question Piper's theology (knowledge of God) as cold, impersonal, and unloving to us wrath-deserving humans. Besides the fact that this instance actually doesn't point toward such a theology (Piper tweeted Job 1:19-20 which, while arguably insensitive, implies that the disaster was meant to inspire awe and fear in a God who is incomprehensibly larger than we, not that it was a manifestation of His wrath for sins), I'm not sure that theology as we usually think of it is the problem here.

Guyton in his post concludes that it is commendable and beneficial to try to see God's purposes in tragedies. However, we can't make others see for them, and trying to do so, as Piper does, can be cruel and damaging. "As a pastor, I do not give myself the authority to tell others how to interpret their tragedies. I can point them to the rich resources of God’s poetry in the Bible so that God can breathe into them the poem that fits." In other words, the main problem is not that commentators who are quick to ascribe divine purpose to tragedies are being insensitive, it is that they are appointing themselves as the mouthpiece of the Spirit and expecting Him to speak to listeners through their words. Obviously this is something a pastor should desire and pray for, but not something you can assume, especially in tragedies.

It's especially tricky when your words are a Bible verse, i.e. from "God's word". I can understand Piper's belief that a Bible verse would be an appropriate response for any situation, given that God's word is said to be a light for our feet and a lamp for our path (Psalm 119:105) and that all scripture is "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). And yet, God's words can and have been misused to great harm after tragedies. Does this mean God's word has failed in these situations?
Remember the "truth trinity" I developed while thinking about what truth is (Jesus), and the follow-up exploration of the purpose of scripture (to encounter and know Christ as the apostles did). I think that for the Bible to truly function as "God's word", it isn't enough to just quote it, study it, or argue it. Isaiah 29:13 sets a precedent for this: "And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men." In other words, it isn't enough to merely throw scripture around no matter how "correct" or "appropriate" it is. Our hearts also need to be in the right place--in fellowship with the living God, being reshaped to the likeness of Christ. Jesus may have promised that the world will hate us, but that is no excuse to misuse scripture.

This is what the Christian aphorism "speak the truth in love" (from Ephesians 4:15) comes from. This is often distorted to mean something like "We most fully love people by speaking the truth of the gospel to them", which can be used to justify an overspiritualized gospel that elevates teaching right doctrine over and against all other needs (see James 2:14-17), insensitive tweets after disasters, or even (I hesitate to go there) the deplorable speech of the Westboro Baptist Church. Paul's point is that speaking truth (even a Bible verse) is not automatically loving and does not mean that God is definitely using you as His mouthpiece. A mother who lost her son to a tornado probably doesn't want to know about how it was all part of God's sovereign plan; she would prefer some empathy, or even a punching bag. This preference is not simply dismissable as "sin blinding us to God's truth". It is human emotion, and trampling it with a singular focus on "bringing truth" is callous. Sometimes the most "Biblical" response to tragedy is to say nothing and instead simply mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)

The medium itself also matters. There is an enormous difference between working through Hebrews 12:9-11 while counseling someone one-on-one to work through their anger at God about the death of a loved one, and tweeting it after a much-publicized tragedy. The difference is that one is highly personal, the other is highly impersonal. I don't think exploring and applying God's truth is supposed to be isolated from modeling the love of Christ through relationships, which is kind of unavoidable in a tweet. This is also why I don't like internet arguments. Without any relationship to preserve, there are just endlessly clashing viewpoints and wounded pride.

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